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*UPDATE: Review: Gil Shaham breathes fitful life into Khachaturian

January 23, 2009 |  1:30 pm

StephaneCoaxing, cajoling, beguiling, violinist Gil Shaham tried to build a case for bringing Aram Khachaturian’s once-popular Violin Concerto back to the mainstream in a performance Thursday night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Slim chance.

The Soviet Armenian composer wrote the work in 1940 for his brilliant compatriot, David Oistrakh, who championed it in performances at home and abroad during and after World War II. Audiences and Soviet officials loved it for its accessibility, Armenian-flavored sweet-and-sour melodies, Technicolor orchestration and rhythmic vitality. But with Oistrakh’s death in 1974 (as well as changing tastes), the grand-scale piece not so gradually dropped from sight.

Some younger violinists have recently taken it up, however. Shaham, unlike the stern-faced Oistrakh, displayed exemplary warmth and charm in his playing and proved no less virtuosic. On the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, he was a wandering soloist, drifting now toward concertmaster Alexander Treger, now toward the violists, now toward the conductor, Stéphane Denève (above) -- with whom he shared beaming smiles -- and then toward the audience. (*UPDATE:  An earlier version of this review said the concertmaster was Martin Chalifour. It was Alexander Treger.)

He went into half-crouches to launch intense passages, rose partway as the energy built, reached full stature as the line matured and sometimes even passed beyond it to arch dangerously back on his heels and end with a flourish. All the while, his fingers danced up and down the fingerboard, making the difficult, often nonstop challenges look absurdly easy.

Yet the sprawling music was only fitfully interesting. The composer’s ideas petered out rather quickly, his elaborations of folkloric melody seemed simplistic, and his rhythmic concepts -- although catchy -- grew predictable, unchallenging and repetitive. Khachaturian never went very deep, nor did he express emotions memorably. It was, of course, risky business to be a composer in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Khachaturian’s expressive caution is understandable, but it kept him out of the top-tier composers of his day.

Denève, the burly, curly-haired music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, followed the soloist carefully and did not venture to impose ideas of his own. Here and elsewhere on the program, one questioned his grasp of architecture and his allowing the brass to overpower the rest of the orchestra and reach near-painful dynamics.

By comparison, the program’s closer, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances -- for all its use of a similarly large-scale orchestra -- sounded restrained, even austere. Composed in the same year as the Khachaturian concerto, Rachmaninoff’s three-movement work was the last he wrote and is infused with an air of nostalgia for a lost world.

Denève conducted it judiciously, steering a course between cool reflection and Romantic overindulgence. His most poignant moments came in the central section of the first movement, with its luminous saxophone solo, played exquisitely by James Rötter, and its finely tuned balance between strings and piano. Rachmaninoff’s orchestration here became almost subtle.

But the conductor appeared more rooted in the moment than aiming toward a goal. Intimately scaled passages often ground to a halt, and it was only when the full ensemble was again called upon that momentum was restored. Still, the orchestra was admirable in its unanimity and production of a lean, powerful sound.

The concert opened with a clearheaded account of Stravinsky’s jaunty, bracing, witty Concerto in E flat, “Dumbarton Oaks.”

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Jan. 24 and 2 p.m. Jan. 25. $42-$147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

-- Chris Pasles

Photo: Stéphane Denève. Credit: J. Henry Fair

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